Stephen is our teacher-writer on the street, this year, focusing his posts on helping US develop OUR writing lives, which Penny Kittle calls “essential to your work as a teacher of writing” (Write Beside Them, 8). If you missed his first installment, check it out and then jump back in here!
My friend, Chris, is really into Magic: The Gathering. You’ve probably seen students play this strategy card game huddled together around a library table, staring down their opponent, clutching fistfuls of cards in their hands.
I admit that I have dabbled a little bit in Magic: The Gathering myself. Chris, in fact, persuaded me to learn how to play. When I agreed to it, off to the blogs and forums he went, constructing just the right deck for a newbie like me, downright giddy with excitement.
Later, we met at Gamer’s Pair-of-Dice here in San Antonio, bought my first deck, and I wizard-battled other Magic enthusiasts. I played many rounds that evening. I lost most of them, but I won a few! Figuring out my strategy was fun, addicting, and I had Chris to thank for it!
Now, what does all of this have to do with writing?
I co-facilitate my district’s version of The Writing Project in the summers. It’s three days where teachers across contents and grade-levels gather to write, talk about writing, and share their writing. It is a delightful time.
The topic that kick starts our learning is the idea of communities of practice.
Wait, what is a community of practice? you ask.
A community of practice is a group of people focused on a specific topic, task, or hobby and are focused on improving. It can be boiled down to this formula:
Interest + Involvement + Practice = Community of Practice
If you think of a community of practice like a circle, you are either in one of three spots. You are on the periphery, at the core, or on the outside. Depending on your focus, passion, or your time, you could be moving closer to the center or taking steps back towards the outside.
We all are involved in communities of practice in some way. What would yours be? Here are some of mine:
- Picture Book author — inside the circle, attempting to move towards the core
- Father — core
- Father of a girl — core
- Father of a son — outside of the circle
- The Edu Twitter World —inside, on the periphery or core depending on the subject matter
- Movie Buff — core
- Bullet Journaler–inside, moving towards core
- Disc Golfer–outside the circle, but in college, I was on the periphery
- Carpentry — periphery
- Country Music fan — happily outside the circle
If Magic: The Gathering is a community of practice (and it very much is), I am very much on the periphery. Chris, on the other hand, is firmly planted in the core.
Now, let’s apply this thinking to our classroom. Traditionally, classrooms are viewed like a pyramid: the teacher at the top dispersing knowledge to the students below. Community within this model is pretty scarce.
But what if we viewed our students and subject matter less like pyramids of knowledge and more as a community of practice? What impact would that have on our students and their grasping of the content?
My goal for the last five years has been developing my students into readers and writers. Essentially treating reading and writing as communities of practice. In my quest, I have frequently asked myself:
Where do my students fall within that circle of WRITER or READER?
Are they on the Inside?
Oh, dear–the Outside?
Am I, as their teacher, inviting them closer to the core or am I unknowingly pushing them out to the periphery–or even further?
Now, an equally important question I’ve asked myself: where do I as their teacher fall in the READER or WRITER community of practice?
I openly admit that for the first 8 years of my teaching career I never once completed a writing task that I assigned my students. It wasn’t until Holden in my 1st period 5 years ago, asked, “So, what is your poem going to be about, Mr. Briseño?” Before that, it never, ever crossed my mind to write alongside my students like that.
Entirely unaware, Holden was inviting me into 1st period’s community of practice. I was on the outside, or more accurately, I was at the top of the pyramid and community was scarce.
What about you? When it comes to being a reader or a writer, are you on the Inside? The Core? The Outside?
I go back to what Chris did for me with Magic. Chris:
- was an active core member of this community of practice
- saw me on the outside and wanted to bring me in
- did not give up, despite my initial hesitance
- addressed areas of confusion that he himself had gone through when he was first learning the game
- was patient.
- demonstrated game play in front of me not just once or twice but countless times.
- asked me questions.
- clearly enjoyed it and was actively trying to improve himself
Eventually, Chris was able to step away and let me go at it on my own, but not without his guidance first. His experience–both his love and learning of the game–convinced me to join him and step inside the circle.
How Chris treated me is how I hope my students feel when it comes to writing and reading.
The Teacher-as-Writer is someone who throws themselves into that community of practice. The Teacher-as-Writer connects with his or her students in a different way, because they are in it unlike other teachers before.
They understand the struggle of coming up with an idea. The daunting task of putting pen to paper. The puzzle of organizing your thoughts. The challenge of revising for clarity and readability. The pain of adjusting something that may not be working.
The Teacher-as-Writer does the same for the students in his or her classroom. They ask their students to join them on this journey, but they go along with them.
Will you step in the circle and become a member of the community and invite others in?
This Months’ Challenges:
If you need to catch up, go back to the first challenge from my previous post.
Challenge 1: Write out your communities of practice you are involved in. Which one excites you the most and why? Which one would you like to move closer to the core? Why?
Challenge 2: The challenge from my last post had you taking all of your ideas, thoughts, whisps and put them on paper and not show them to anyone. Your next challenge is a little bit more involved.
- Review your list. Choose 1 or 2 that are still resonating with you, that you’ve been wanting to get out or simply want to explore further.
- Write it. Do just that. If it’s something shorter–a poem, an article, a picture book idea, short story, I want you to–and don’t be frightened by these next two words–FINISH IT. Get it done. At all costs. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but as I tell my students sometimes, Finished but imperfect is better than perfect but incomplete. If it’s something longer, like the beginning of a novel perhaps, write out the first chapter. But still, FINISH it.
- Be brave. Share it with at least one person. Someone you trust and would get what you’re trying to write. Have them answer one question, “Where is my writing unclear?” Take their feedback. Thank them. Buy them a coffee. Treat them to lunch.
- Let your writing sit for a while, at least two days. (Think of this like a soup. A few days after you make it, all the flavors get to know each other, but if it sits too long, it rots.) Open it back up. How can you address your reader’s concerns and make your writing stronger, clearer?
Connect with me on social media! (@stephen_briseno) I’d love to hear how you are doing with this challenge! Happy writing!